Web 're-defining' human identity says chief scientist

Screengrab from Aion Online role-playing games help people shrug off preconceptions and find their true identities, says the report

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Social networks such as Facebook and on-line gaming are changing people's view of who they are and their place in the world, according to a report for the government's chief scientist.

The report, published by Prof Sir John Beddington, says that traditional ideas of identity will be less meaningful.

One consequence could be communities becoming less cohesive.

This change could be harnessed to bring positive changes or if ignored could fuel social exclusion, says the study.

"This can be a positive force, exemplified by the solidarity seen in the London 2012 Olympics or a destructive force, for example the 2011 riots," says the report.

"Due to the development of smart phones, social networks and the trend towards (greater) connectivity disparate groups can be more easily mobilised where their interests temporarily coincide."

"For example," it says, "a 'flash mob' can be mobilised between people who have not previously met".

The report, entitled "Future Identities," says that near continuous access to the internet, termed "hyper-connectivity", will drive profound changes to society over the next 10 years.


Prof Beddington commissioned the study as part of the Government Office for Science's Foresight programme - the influential Foresight reports look ahead to highlight emerging trends in science and technology with a view to informing policies across government departments.

Start Quote

The internet can allow many people to realise their identities more fully”

End Quote Foresight report

"The most dynamic trend (in determining identity) is hyper-connectivity," Prof Beddington told BBC News.

"The collection and use of data by government and the private sector, the balancing of individual rights and liberties against privacy and security and the issue of how to tackle social exclusion, will be affected by these trends," he said. "I hope the evidence in today's report will contribute to the policy making process."

This latest report on identity undertook 20 separate reviews in which leading UK and international experts assessed research in computer science, criminology and social sciences.

It states that the changing nature of identities will have substantial implications for what is meant by communities and by social integration. The study shows that traditional elements that shape a person's identity, such as their religion, ethnicity, job and age are less important than they once were.

Instead, particularly among younger people, their view of themselves is shaped increasingly by on-line interactions of social networks and on online role playing games.

The study found that far from creating superficial or fantasy identities that some critics suggest, in many cases it allowed people to escape the preconceptions of those immediately around them and find their "true" identity. This is especially true of disabled people who told researchers that online gaming enabled them to socialise on an equal footing with others.

London riots Social networks also helped people organise during riots in 2011

"The internet can allow many people to realise their identities more fully, " the authors write. "Some people who have been shy or lonely or feel less attractive discover they can socialise more successfully and express themselves more freely online".

The report points out that in 2011, 60% of internet users were members of a social network site, a huge surge in usage, up 43% from 2007. Consequently, it says that there may greater political activism using these networks as was seen in the revolution in Tunisia and the mobilisation of dissent in Egypt and Libya.

There will also be a blurring of work and social identities as photos and details of people's personal lives become increasingly public on social networking sites. The report cites a hypothetical example of how a young person was denied promotion because her employer found drunken photos of her from her university days.

The report says that as the distinction between online and real world identities diminishes criminals are likely to try and exploit the many new forms of interlinked data relating people's identities and from social media and professional and financial websites in order to steal identities.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    The more you become an atomised individual floating in the world with no roots or culture, the more you become a slave to the powerful commercial forces in the world.

    The UK must be the worst country in the world for this as the BBC's focus on modernity (destroying history) has produced a groundless populace, who won't stand up for themselves as they don't remember who they are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    I have tried to engage with twitter and facebook but just can't seem to be able to get into it. My wife loves it though and is constantly checking things on her phone and telling me all about people I have made a point of ignoring for the last 10 years!
    I still organise my work and social life through good OLD fashioned.... email.
    And the only posing I do is on HYS!

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    It annoys me when I go round to friends houses and they're always tinkering on their Smart Phones. I cunningly use my Mobiles to make phone calls and that's about it. I'm not a technophobe, I've got a beefy HD Desktop myself, I just find it really ignorant. Sometimes cetain people leed an amazing/busy/interesting life on the Interweb, but in real life they're still boring..

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    129. cc123 "why not speak to sociologists about these issues"

    The best reason is that they are irrelevant! And as you say 'baffled'!

    Your academic prejudices impair your vision! Thirty years of working for the Tory Establishment system has so clouded your judgement that you haven't a clue as to what is going on.

    Anyway the media (controlled by 'King' Murdoch) set the agenda - you don't!

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    Life would be boring without online interaction. Being a troll helps pass the day while i convince others that they are idiotic and are a burden to society. You should all give it a go (as long as you are not too malicious and tell people they should hurt themselves or whatever) It's all good fun. Especially when someone slips up in an argument, you can just jump all over that

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Since all persons are made in God's image, and designed for a real, personal relationship with Him in which identity, dignity and destiny are to be found, the lowering and loss should be no surprise! Denial, dismissal or distancing from our Creator inhibits or innoculates each one of us. Wonderfully, all are still available & recoverable. He graciously awaits a repentant response to His invite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    123.inqa "We're all moving heavily to the right."

    What a load of tosh!

    The access to information provided by the internet has had no effect on the rise in selfishness that generates a move to the right (which is related to the Depression - and it always happens.)

    UKIP&EDL = British Union of Fascists: 1930s = 2000s

    And there is always a leftwards backlash to follow! It is the economy stupid!

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    I think there is a great over-estimation of the degree to which people use social media. Yes people use it a lot, but almost no one uses it exclusively. People still meet their friends in the real world. An online identity is a component of a personality, like a work persona, or a 'best behavior' persona. We didn't forget how to interact with real people after the invention of the telephone either

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    BBC, why not speak to sociologists about these issues? As an academic discipline, we are practically invisible in terms of media exposure, despite having so much to offer in terms of contributing to public discourse on this sort of issue. This situation continues to baffle me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    It is just a tool, nothing more. As long as you view it that way it is fine. IT has it's place and is valuable but it is no substitute for real life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    yep = = we are all becoming square eyed automatons

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    I have no Facebook or twitter account. Therefore I do not exist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    I am an avid social-network user. I do not states that all my hundreds of "friends" are my real friends. If people were to ask me who my friends were, I'd say only a few, nothing as much as I have on Facebook. Facebook enables me to connect with people from the past, that's why I use it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.


    They get to interact with like minded people, the people that regular society kicks down and bullies for being quiet, intelligent and a little bit "different".

    You assume that out in the real world, they'd "fit in" with the trendies, but they won't, they have no desire to interact with these fools. You'd deny them interaction with other like minded people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    We're all moving heavily to the right.

    Correlation? Obviously.

    Causation? Well, how much empathy does one gain from sitting in a comfy chair seeing the world through a box?

    I've been on the 'net since the mid-1990s. I used to think it would be a powerful provider of knowledge. I now think it's a powerful provider of ignorance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    I have always worked on the assumption that social media= paradise for saddos, and just ignored it.
    I now find that a company I do a lot of work for is sending out instructions as to what we must put on our sites " to further enhance the positive image the company has in the public domain"
    I pointed out I have no facebook etc.......and was told to get one or have no more work allocated

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    The Internet was great while it was the sole preserve of the academic elite and the computer nerds. Ever since it went 'mainstream' and 'trendy', we've have Facebook, Twitter, and online shopping, and the Internet's usefulness quickly vanished.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Identity is largely an illusion, anyway, but an online identity can be created from scratch. Our public identities are often tarred by the prejudices, vanities and preconceived ideas of those in our environment that we take on board, often leaving some with a very negative view of themselves. "Online" gives us the chance to build a new identity unchained from other's biased preconceptions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Human identity' here, as often, dodges 'the identity' of humans 'as humans'

    In study of difference, essence may be missed, shareable context lost

    Diverted from shared freedom 'to be ourselves', to be barred only from deliberate harm, we focus on collectively self-inflicted fears - without end - of exclusion, of 'right choices made wrong', of 'not belonging', or 'belonging to the wrong group'

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Call me old fashioned, but Facebook, Twitter et al mainly foster narcissism, delusions of grandeur and time-wasting. Life is what you miss while you're posting your latest trivia.


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